Most of us who live in New York’s Adirondack Park are here because it is a beautiful, relatively wild and natural place. Winters are hard to endure (and getting harder, from some vantage points, as they become more erratic and less consistently cold) and jobs hard to find (and maybe also getting harder, as global overheating weakens the winter economy). Yet even those of us who love the Adirondacks may not realize how special is our own little part of it, here around the villages near Lake Champlain.
Our homeland in and around Essex and lake-side villages to north and south goes by various names or descriptors. Some folks know it simply as the eastern Adirondacks, eastern Essex County, or the Champlain Valley. With dark humor, some folks call our area the Banana Belt of the Adirondacks, so much milder are we than areas higher and farther into the Park (but even the direst climate models don’t have us growing bananas this century!). More poetically, naturalist (and champion of heritage tourism) Gary Randorf dubbed our area the Adirondack Coast. More recently, another great naturalist and conservationist, Jerry Jenkins, has given our area the apt and redolent label West Champlain Hills, to encompass the modest but rocky hills just west of (and in a few places reaching through) Lake Champlain’s west valley.
Split Rock Wildway: Critical Wildlife Corridor
Often in this blog, I’ve mentioned Split Rock Wildway, and promoted it as a vital wildlife corridor linking Lake Champlain with the High Peaks to the west. Split Rock Wildway is mostly within, and is one of the most intact parts of, the West Champlain Hills.
Split Rock Wildway comprises the wooded hills running from the Split Rock Range along Lake Champlain west over Coon Mountain then northwest over Boquet Mountain then west to the Jay Range and the small mountains around Poko-Moonshine — by which time, arguably, a wandering bear, heading to cooler climes in summer, has left the West Champlain Hills and entered the foothills of the High Peaks. Split Rock Wildway, then, is a generally east-west running wildlife corridor including much of the roughly south-north running West Champlain Hills.
Botanical Significance of West Champlain Hills
In this blog, I won’t repeat my pleas for the wide-ranging animals that live in and travel through Split Rock Wildway. Instead, I’ll try to convince you to follow Jerry Jenkins’s teachings on the botanical significance of your home territory. For Jerry has found, after decades of plant surveys across the Northeast, that we have one of the richest plant communities in the Northern Forest, right here in the hills we wander. The West Champlain Hills have an unusual plant community that Jerry sometimes calls the dry-rich oak-hickory-hophornbeam assemblage. Richness tends to go with lushness, so we are luckier than you might suppose, for having high species richness, including many species usually found farther south, in an ecosystem that is by Northeast standards remarkably dry (almost “xeric”, to borrow a botanist’s term that all Scrabble players should know).
Many of us complain about the number of rainy days here in the Adirondacks; but really, along Lake Champlain, we are relatively dry. We are in the rain shadow of the High Peaks, so get much less precipitation than our headwater mountains. Plants need water, of course, but they also need nutrients, particularly calcium. Many of the hills west of Lake Champlain are blessed with surprisingly high levels of calcium in their soils, allowing “fertility indicators” (Jerry’s evocative phrase) like Fragrant Sumac, Woodland Sunflower, Rafinesque Vibernum, Douglas Knotweed, and White Oak to prosper.
Other Aspects of the West Champlain Hills
Let me not overplay our dry/rich aspects, though (which tend to correspond with south- and east-facing slopes). We also have in the West Champlain Hills the more expected damp/rich sites, often in ravines where nutrients wash down and accumulate. Here, look for Maiden’s-hair Fern and a dazzling array of spring wildflowers. Our most famous example of this is the ravine through which runs the Adirondack Land Trust trail up Coon Mountain, which is fairly festooned with flowers each May.
We have, as well, steep north-facing slopes that grow mostly Eastern Hemlock, mosses, and a small number of shade-tolerant herbs. What trees will fill hemlock’s vital place if the dreaded invasive species Hemlock Wooly Adelgid reaches our hills (from vanguards in Catskills or southern Green Mountains) remains to be seen. Since American Beech is also being decimated by an exotic species, and Sugar Maple is particularly susceptible to acid rain and over-browsing by deer, we cannot expect them to fill the role. Maybe birches?
Leaving aside those worries, the relative richness of our hills’ soils is still something of a mystery. Jerry points out that the bedrocks in our area, including metanorthosite, are generally richer in nutrients than are most other country rocks of our region. New Hampshire granite, for instance, is more nutrient-challenged than Adirondack anorthosite. As well, Jerry has coyly hinted, the “plumbing” of our hills – the way water flows over rocks and percolates through soils – may tend to enrich some sites here more than happens in most of our region’s uplands.
Indeed, Jerry has suggested (and will more fully disclose in his much awaited Northern Forest Atlas series) that the West Champlain Hills may be botanically the richest area in the Adirondack Park. For most of us, perhaps, this richness is to be celebrated more than it is to be investigated. Whatever the causes, we are fortunate to live in an area of great plant diversity, which may in turn enhance animal diversity. So, next time your teenage son or daughter asks “why do we live in this boring place?”, you might answer that in fact we live in an extraordinarily rich and beautiful place, where richness is measured more in living beings than in ultimately-worthless dollars.
Click any image below to enlarge and begin a slideshow showcasing different areas in the West Champlain Hills.
Note: The content in this blog post was repurposed and a revised version is included in John Davis’s book Split Rock Wildway: Scouting the Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor published by Essex Editions on Nov. 21, 2017. Learn more about the book and where to buy it at essexeditions.com. Watch the book trailer below.
- Split Rock Wildway: A Critical Wildlife Corridor (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Where is the Split Rock Wildway? (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Split Rock Wildway: Creating and Protecting a Wildlife Corridor (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Split Rock Wildway: Protecting Biological Riches (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)